A Florida judge ruled this week that a 17-year-old runaway girl, Fathima Rifqa Bary, must return to Ohio so courts there can decide whether she can be reunited with her family. This story should appear as maybe a paragraph in USA Today’s roundup of state news. But, rather, it’s headline news—because the girl, known as Rifqa, converted to Christianity from Islam and she claims her father will kill her if she returns home. ABC News is running the headline: “Christian Teen Flees Home, Says She Fears Honor Killing by Muslim Father.”
As a mother—and a former rebellious teen in my own docile way—I know this story is a lot more complicated than the headlines. Rifqa could be “the drama queen” that some commentators following the story are concluding. The courts will settle this out, I’m certain. To me, the bigger question is: Why has this story struck such a chord? It’s not just Islam-bashing, as some might claim. To me, Rifqa Bary’s saga has become headline news because the Muslim community of the 21st Century has allowed an ideology of honor killings and intolerance to seep into our communities, making Rifqa’s story plausible.
We have allowed an ideology to survive into the 21st Century making “apostasy,” or the act of converting out of the faith, a crime punishable by death.
We have allowed laws to stay on the books from Egypt to Afghanistan, making it a crime to convert out of Islam. We have allowed an ideology to survive into the 21st Century making “apostasy,” or the act of converting out of the faith, a crime punishable by death. And we have to admit that we allow a culture of intolerance to exist. On the road to Mecca in the winter of 2003 on the pilgrimage called haj, I looked out the window of our tour bus at the sign above the exit ramp, leading folks away from Mecca. The sign for the exit ramp read quite simply: “Non-Muslims.” The government of Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow people who are not Muslim into Mecca. Furthermore, the government of Saudi Arabia doesn’t allow churches in the country. Meanwhile, in the hinterland of the province of Punjab in Pakistan, we have Muslim militants killing Christians, as they did this past summer.
But it isn’t just the stuff of faraway places. Last week, I picked up a pamphlet at the Madina Market in Herndon, Va., a popular stop for local Muslims shopping for halal (or kosher) meat and spices. The title: “Combat Kit Against Bible Thumpers.” It’s written by Ahmed Deedat, a Muslim writer revered by many inside the community. The publishing house is the International Islamic Publishing House, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It lays out the ways that the Israelites were “insatiable whores.”
It’s the politics of interpretation playing out again in our Muslim world, just like it does on issues like whether women have to cover their faces with veils. One of the issues at play is the tone set in the first pages of the Qur’an, in the first chapter called “Al Fatihah,” or “The Opening.” A translation by a 20th century scholar of Islam, Yusuf Ali, lays out a straightforward interpretation of the last verses of the chapter (1:6-7): “Show us the straight way. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.
The problem emerges with parenthetical phrases that are now inserted into the translation. A perfect example is from “The Noble Qur’an,” published by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, based in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Its translation reads: “Guide us on the Straight Way. The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of those who have earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians). This version can be found all over the internet on translation services like “ iqrasearch.com” and “ guidedways.com.”
The task for Muslims, I believe, is to rid our community of these parenthetical phrases. We read this first chapter of the Qur’an every time we stand in prayer. How we understand it in our hearts is critical to how we engage with the rest of the world. The parenthetical phrases feed the ideology of intolerance that makes it plausible that a Muslim father could conceivably kill his daughter for converting to Christianity—rather than seeing this headline story as just another example of a generational conflict.
Asra Q. Nomani is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She is co-director of the Pearl Project, an investigation into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Her activism for women’s rights at her mosque in West Virginia is the subject of a PBS documentary, The Mosque in Morgantown. She can be found on Facebook, and reached at firstname.lastname@example.org